Barriers to Re-Enrollment: The Case of Covid-19's Impact on sub-Saharan Schoolgirls

By Emily Didier

Over the last two years, Covid-19 has altered the world’s routines – from workplace practices and supply chains to social gatherings and education. Students around the world suffered from school closures, and their academic progress slowed as alternative remote learning options were hastily employed. School closures have had a disproportionate impact on girls. Of 116 countries surveyed by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the OECD, less than half took one or more steps to address girls' education during Covid-19. The pandemic's educational effects were particularly intense in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), with close to 20 million girls from LMICs estimated to drop out of school because of the pandemic’s pervasive impact.

With pre-existing gender disparities and more unenrolled children than any other region before Covid-19, sub-Saharan Africa was vulnerable to the pandemic’s gendered, educational effects. Continued monitoring of these consequences is necessary to draw concrete conclusions, but the results of early analyses reveal trends that parallel those recorded after the Ebola epidemic. In Ghana, 97 percent of students re-enrolled in schools upon their reopening, but of those who did not re-enroll, 60 percent were girls. Likewise, in a 2021 survey of four Kenyan counties, 16 percent of adolescent girls did not re-enroll within two months of schools reopening in comparison to 8 percent of adolescent boys. An understanding of what caused this re-enrollment disparity is necessary for policymakers to best address the re-enrollment gap and advocate for girls’ educational rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Student Became the Laborer

Covid-19 related financial burdens contributed to fewer girls re-enrolling as families could not afford to send them to school. A recent study in Nairobi, Kenya provided 150 USD to households of adolescent girls when schools reopened; 95 percent of these girls re-enrolled in comparison to 87 percent of those whose families did not receive the stipend. When not in school, girls often assumed more domestic responsibilities, like caring for younger siblings or completing household chores, which allowed older relatives to seek income-producing work. Anecdotes reveal that sub-Saharan boys, in contrast, spent more time doing leisure activities. This difference in responsibilities suggests that girls lacked the free time needed to commit to their remote studies and later re-enroll.

The Shadow Pandemic

An uptake of labor activities exposed girls to gender-based violence (GBV) and fueled what is known as the “shadow pandemic,” the sexual harassment and violence women experienced at heightened levels during Covid-19. The International Rescue Committee’s 2020 safety audit in 15 African nations discovered that of women and girls sent to collect water frequently during the pandemic, 31 percent were harassed, and 22 percent were victims of sexual violence. Facing economic insecurity, girls also turned to sexual exploitation in exchange for food. Moreover, in search of work to supplement household income, girls increasingly migrated from rural to urban areas where they were exposed to further harassment and exploitation. In addition to the economic causes of GBV, the proximity of people in communities and households during lockdowns led to an increase in sexual exploitation. Reports of child and forced marriages in Malawi increased by 83 percent between April and June 2020 in comparison to the same months in 2019. Because of these traumatic experiences, girls endured heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, all of which can influence concentration levels, the effectiveness of remote learning, and their likelihood to re-enroll in schools.

The Pathway to Increased Pregnancies

As an extension of the shadow pandemic, adolescent girls experienced an increased number of pregnancies that prevented their return to school. When in school, girls were not around potential offenders, and teachers could intervene if they noticed signs of harassment. Thus, school closures meant a loss of protection from sexual exploitation. In the case of Machakos County, Kenya, 4,000 student pregnancies were documented within five months of schools closing. Adolescent pregnancies complicated girls’ re-enrollment, especially since the stance on pregnant learners in sub-Saharan countries varies. Rwanda’s school policies strive to include pregnant students and adolescent mothers. In contrast, Tanzania administered pregnancy tests and expelled pregnant students until announcing in November 2021 that pregnant learners and young mothers may re-enroll in June 2022. Equatorial Guinea and Togo remain the last African countries with bans on pregnant learners. Despite progress allowing pregnant learners and mothers to re-enroll, the stigma around pregnancy remains, and schoolgirls’ resulting embarrassment led to a spike in mental health issues that discouraged their return to school.

It should be noted that while anecdotes and reports demonstrate a rise in pregnancies during the pandemic, concrete conclusions about adolescent pregnancy rates cannot be drawn at this time due to variations in data collection during Covid-19. Yet the current trend mirrors the high increases in young pregnancies recorded after the Ebola epidemic.

The Technological Disconnect

Further explaining the re-enrollment disparity, the gender digital divide was not widely accounted for when schools turned to remote learning. Sub-Saharan gender norms limit women and girls’ exposure to digital technologies, resulting in inequalities that affected the transition to remote learning. A survey of five Southern African Development Community countries found that 23 percent of boys had no issues with remote learning in comparison to 12 percent of girls; 28 percent of boys always had access to the internet in comparison to 15 percent of girls; and 72 percent of girls reported internet connectivity challenges in comparison to 38 percent of boys. This digital divide created an obstacle for girls to overcome, positioned them to struggle academically, and often threatened their desire to re-enroll in school.

Recommendations for the G7: The Path to Gender Equality and a Strengthened African Economy

To circumvent what the World Bank calls an “inequality catastrophe in the making” and promote women’s educational rights in sub-Saharan Africa, a strategy that addresses the gendered consequences of Covid-19 that schoolgirls face is necessary. Not only that, but also it is in the G7’s best interest to facilitate this progress for a multitude of reasons.

Africa’s booming and increasingly young and urban population presents an economic opportunity. However, if educational policies do not facilitate the inclusion of adolescent mothers and discourage stigmatization, sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP could suffer by 10 billion USD. Each year a girl in Africa attends school increases her income by 14 percent. Thus, to create a stronger economic partner, the G7 should consider the pervasive, gendered impacts of Covid-19 when developing policy regarding their relationship with Africa, facilitate the education of sub-Saharan girls, and, in turn, raise girls’ post-pandemic re-enrollment rates.

Aiding sub-Saharan girls’ education also aligns with the G7’s Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, which has a focus on gender equality and equity. In particular, the Biden administration has shown its commitment by establishing the White House Gender Policy Council and requesting 2.6 billion USD for gender equality and equity for the fiscal year 2023. To follow through with these goals in sub-Saharan Africa, the G7 should consider the following recommendations:

  1. Address the Shadow Pandemic

The G7 should reaffirm their recognition of the gendered effects of Covid-19, particularly concerning the shadow pandemic, and reinvigorate their dedication to gender equality. To mitigate GBV and adolescent pregnancies, prevention and response program funding is necessary. The G7 should also invest in organizations that relieve the financial burden prohibiting girls from re-enrolling in schools to facilitate their re-enrollment and consequently limit their exposure to heightened GBV.

  1. Close the Gender Digital Divide

The G7 must note the gendered dimension of the digital divide and its effects on girls’ education in sub-Saharan Africa. Investments in initiatives that strive to narrow the gender digital divide are essential. Not only would this alleviate the gendered, educational impacts of Covid-19, but also it would foster a generation of girls with technical skills who can then employ them in the workplace and strengthen Africa’s economy.

  1. Advocate for Further Research

To draw more concrete conclusions about Covid-19's implications in sub-Saharan Africa and better inform policy, the G7 should encourage further monitoring and measuring of factors disaggregated by gender, such as violence against adolescents, students’ mental health, child labor, and school re-enrollment rates. The G7 should provide technical assistance to facilitate codified measurement procedures and fund organizations facilitating these measurements to ensure they have the resources necessary to evaluate the long-term effects.

By taking these actions, the G7 can be an advocate for gender equality, thereby avoiding an “inequality catastrophe,” bolstering sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth, and fostering their relationship with the region.

Emily Didier is a social media & research intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).